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10 Skills Needed To Be a Physical Therapist

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Medically reviewed by Allison Wozniak, DPT

Continuing our look at our picks for the top attributes for medical professions, we turn to the highly-rewarding field of physical therapy and ask what makes for an effective (and successful) therapist.

Thinking of getting into the field of physical therapy? Want to weigh-in on what you think makes for an ideal physical therapist? Here are our top 10 skills need to be a successful physical therapist.


The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offers additional and optional APTA-credentialing, but less than a quarter of PTs are APTA-credentialed. A study of clinical instructors in the Journal of Physical Therapy Education suggested there is a lack of motivation because APTA credentials typically doesn’t translate to an increase in pay. However, these credentials promote ongoing education, allow physical therapists to effectively network/collaborate with their colleagues and instill confidence in both patients and peers.

The American Physical Therapy Associationbreaks down the different physical therapist credentials and their appropriate uses. There are currently five designations a PT can earn, and they do not need to be completed in a specific order, but instead promote different avenues a physical therapist can advance their education.

All physical therapists must graduate from an accredited program in order to sit for their boards. Once they graduate from this program they receive either a Doctorate of Physical Therapy or a Masters of Physical Therapy. Most therapists who have graduated from PT school over the past five years have a Doctorate with very little Master’s programs remaining. By 2020 all students entering a Physical Therapy program must enter a Doctoral program with the intent of making a shift toward Direct Access practice, meaning no prescription from a physician is required. This generally takes 5.5-7 years (including undergrad) to achieve this, depending on the specific program. This is how the second designation is earned, but really is the first step in the process.

Once they graduate from an accredited program they must sit for the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) where they will be licensed in the specific state they will be practicing in. Passing the NPTE would gain their first designation.

From there they can gain advanced credentialing (the third designation) such as the Orthopedic Clinical Specialist, (OCS). You can obtain this credentialing in many ways. Some through a residency following graduation to prepare for the Specialty Exam, or if one is self-motivated perform independent study and sit for the exam. This is the third designation.

The fourth designation is another earned academic degree. Some Physical therapists have athletic training backgrounds as their undergraduate, which they may choose to list depending on the specialty in which they treat.

Lastly the highest designation or advanced credential you can achieve is completing a fellowship program that includes years of studying and practicing under the mentorship of a trained fellow.


The average physical therapist in America has more than five years of experience, with physical therapy administrators and educational staff having 2-9 years of experience on average. Experience is nice to have once you’ve got it and many PTs who are effective have lots of experience, but there are other factors as important or more so in being an effective physical therapist. Additionally, the experience required for a physical therapist varies for each opening.


In August 2003, the APTA Board of Directors adopted a core document that breaks down the values of a physical therapist titled Professionalism in Physical Therapy: Core Values.One of those values – accountability – is demonstrated “through a number of sample indicators that includes maintaining membership in PT-related organizations.”

According to APTA, accountability in physical therapy is “active acceptance of the responsibility for the diverse roles, obligations, and actions of the physical therapist including self-regulation and other behaviors that positively influence patient/client outcomes, the profession and the health needs of society.” By being involved in APTA and other similar organizations, one can help to promote the profession by improving insurance reimbursement rates and making physical therapy more accessible to patients. Only 10% of patients that need physical therapy actually make it into a clinic.

Engaged in Regular Professional Development

The World Confederation of Physical Therapy(WCPT) defines continuing professional development as a way for a physical therapist to “maintain, develop and enhance their personal and professional skills, knowledge and behaviors, and ongoing competence to practice.”

Physical therapists benefit from professional development more than most medical professionals in that they can more quickly apply new skills and procedures learned during professional development and see results more with patients immediately.

Physical therapists are required to take continuing education courses in order to renew their licenses every two years, allowing them to keep up to date with the latest treatment techniques and provide the best outcomes. The amount of continuing education credits required varies state to state but is usually around 30 contact hours, including medical ethics and child abuse courses.

Involved in Professional Associations

For example, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) promotes physical therapy and advocates for physical therapists in Washington DC and locally, offers opportunities for networking and collaboration, provides resources and professional education, and promotes evidence-based practice.

APTA is an organization that represents more than 100,000 physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and PT students. In APTA’s words, their main goal is “to transform society by optimizing movement to improve the human experience.” This essentially means they are constantly seeking improvement on all fronts of the physical therapy profession.


Physical disability often involves loss or reduction in one or more abilities. While a physical therapist works with patients in an attempt to recover some of these diminished functions, a modest, reverential, even submissive attitude can help give patients the confidence they need to begin recovery. When physical therapists are actively listening and show attention to detail, their patients feel more comfortable and a trusted relationship with their patient is formed. These little details can truly improve the overall well-being of a patient.

Willing to Do Home Visits

Home physical therapy is gaining popularity for patients and PTs who are willing to do house calls. Home-based physical therapy is simply when a physical therapist comes to the patient’s house for treatment and evaluation. The reasons for this care are because a patient is not able to leave their house to receive treatment or they simply want a private therapy session. People recovering from a stroke or surgery and people with Multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease are some of the examples of who would benefit from in-home physical therapy. Physical therapists who favor this kind of work can often enjoy higher profits due to the added-value of this service.


Beyond common decency, being kind to your patients means both of you will be in a good mood for treatment sessions and teed-up for positive results.  A kind physical therapist is able to show empathy and compassion, two very important traits when working with people in need. A well-treated patient is more likely to feel good about themselves and get comfortable, often multiplying the effect of treatments.

Social Skills

Due to their close relationship with their patients, physical therapists who are able to be a sociable human being while still remaining professional will lead their clients to feel at ease during therapeutic sessions. Especially important in the profession, physical therapists must master their interpersonal skills or face career disaster. Some important social skills a physical therapist most possess are:

  • Clear communication
  • Positive attitude
  • Active listener
  • Professionalism
  • Politeness
  • Patience


A highly knowledgeable physical therapist will exude confidence once there are few unknown factors that can effectively inhibit his or her performance. Perhaps more than any other trait on this list, physical therapists must – above all – know what they’re doing and know that they know what they’re doing. According to this journal, competence in physical therapy is described as “the habitual and judicious use of communication, knowledge, technical skills, clinical reasoning, emotions, values, and reflection in daily practice for the benefit of the individual and the community being served.”

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Contributor Lesley Slaughter

Lesley is currently a vice president with Soliant and oversees the schools' division. Her 14 years of staffing experience has helped grow our schools' therapy division at Soliant from 3 recruiters to over 100. Lesley is skilled in permanent placement, technical recruiting, and staffing services within public and private schools. She has worked with school districts and school professionals across the country, supporting special education, speech therapy, school psychology, and much more. She’s originally from Northwest Georgia, holds a Bachelor of Art’s in Broadcasting from Georgia Southern University, and loves spending time with her husband and 2 daughters. Make sure to check out the rest of her blogs on working in schools.